Last month, Harvard psychologist and atheist public intellectual Steven Pinker posted this provocative tweet: “As any Jew knows, there is controversy (to put it mildly) over whether Jesus was the messiah. But did he exist at all? A new book by R. G. Price argues, ‘Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed.’”
This comment garnered well over a thousand likes and 600 shares. This, despite the fact that the book Pinker highlighted was self-published by someone without the relevant scholarly credentials. Its thesis is historically laughable. But the takeaway is one that even a highly educated atheist like Pinker will gladly swallow and propagate. Posts like this reinforce the popular idea that Jesus is a flimsy, semi-mythological character—wearing sandals for sure, but without any clear historical footprint.
We Christians know better. Or do we?
Stop the average Christian and ask if there is any historical evidence for the person on whom they have staked their life, and you will likely hear sheepish mumbling. Most of us wax apologetic when people ask about the evidence for Christ, but not in the right sense: Rather than offering reasons for our faith, we simply reveal our ignorance. All of which makes Can We Trust the Gospels?, a new book from Cambridge University Bible scholar Peter Williams, essential reading.
The Best Records
Williams begins by mining early non-Christian writings about Jesus and his followers: sources like the Roman historian Tacitus’s account of Christians being blamed for the Great Fire of Rome (A.D. 64); or Pliny the Younger’s correspondence with the Emperor Trajan, regarding how severely to persecute Christians; or the first-century Jewish historian Josephus’s writing on Jesus and John the Baptist. Williams shows how these sources attest to the key facts of Jesus’ life, confirming that he was worshiped as divine, that his followers experienced persecution, that Christianity spread far and fast, and that “some of the early Christian leaders would have known of Christ’s family origins.”
Turning to the Gospels themselves, Williams argues that Jesus’ life produced more detailed and better-attested accounts than the contemporary Roman emperor Tiberius, “the most famous person in the then-known world.” While the earliest surviving manuscripts describing Tiberius’s life date from the ninth century, the earliest surviving incomplete copies of the Gospels are from the second and third centuries, and we have complete copies of all the Gospels from the fourth.
Not only are the Gospels the best-attested texts about Jesus, argues Williams, but they are also the most authentic. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code popularized a narrative that the non-canonical “gospels” reveal a more authentic picture of Jesus that was subsequently stifled for political reasons. But Williams counters by arguing, “The four Gospels were not chosen as a result of political power, but rather they became accepted by early Christians as the best sources for information about Jesus’s life without any central authority pressuring others to accept them.”
Further, he shows that by at least “the late second century and early third century, the four Gospels were a recognized group.” Lest we should put this down to Christian bias, Williams cites skeptical scholars such as Bart Ehrman to clinch the case. If we want to know about Jesus, the best records we have are the New Testament Gospels.
Dripping with Detail
These foundational points are clearly and concisely expressed. They will be useful to anyone exploring the history around the Gospels for the first time. But they will be broadly familiar to those who have read any of a number of apologetics books. Where Williams’s book comes alive for a more seasoned reader is in sections showing how the Gospels drip with local detail.
Williams mounts an impressive case that the Gospel writers “knew their stuff,” to adapt the title of his third chapter. Drawing from New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham’s excellent book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, and his own research, Williams documents a host of geographical and cultural details that demonstrate deep familiarity with Jesus’ time and location, including analysis of the frequency of names in the Gospels versus those found in other sources from first-century Palestine—and how the use of names in the Gospels fits with their historical context.
Williams argues, moreover, that the Gospels are profoundly Jewish texts, and that even the least obviously Jewish Gospel (Luke’s) is shot through with Semitic detail. For instance, he notes that Jesus’ final pre-crucifixion words in Luke—“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (23:46)—echoed the traditional deathbed prayer of an observant Jew. Given that Christianity spread rapidly among the Gentiles, soon becoming a majority-Gentile faith, the fact that the Gospels are so Jewish attests to their authenticity.
Williams then turns to the common idea that the Gospels present a mythologized Christ, loosely based on a historical figure but with supernatural features gradually snuck in. He argues that the presence of family members in the early Christian movement would have made it hard for additional beliefs about Jesus (for example, his virgin birth) to be fabricated early on, and he critiques the idea that “novel beliefs arose later” on the grounds that “by then, Christianity had spread so far and so fast that it would have been difficult to introduce innovations.”
Indeed, while the content of the Gospels clings closely to first-century Palestine, copies of the Gospels traveled rapidly with the early Christian movement, and it would have been impractical for any central authority to recall and doctor them at a later date. Moreover, while the Greco-Roman world was replete with tales of demigods, Williams argues that there was no space within the fiercely monotheistic Jewish mindset for a semi-deified Jesus. He acknowledges that the miraculous claims of the Gospels make them unpalatable from a secular perspective. But the supernatural elements of Christianity, including the Christian belief in the deity of Christ, seem to have been there from the first.
What about the reliability of Jesus’ own words, as recorded in the Gospels? Williams makes this bold claim: “Arguably, we have greater knowledge of what Jesus said than of sayings from any other ancient person who did not write a book.” He supports this claim with intriguing lines of evidence, including an exploration of the relationship between Greek and Aramaic in first-century Palestine, and he disputes the idea that Jesus’ teachings were corrupted over time by unreliable oral traditions. In the first and second century, he argues, “Rabbinic confidence in memorization was so high that some rabbis even banned the writing of oral traditions.”
In this chapter as in others, Williams anticipates questions anyone might naturally think to ask, but he also brings up questions that perhaps never would have occurred to the average reader: for example, whether our Greek New Testaments record translations of Jesus’ teachings from the original Aramaic or whether Jesus, in fact, spoke both languages. Any reader not already immersed in the world of biblical scholarship will learn from his insights.
Equipped with Answers
Perhaps because the previous chapters are so rich, Chapter 7, in which Williams addresses apparent contradictions in the Gospels, feels a bit thin. He emphasizes Jesus’ use of paradox—an important piece of the puzzle—but he gives little attention to seeming contradictions in ordering and detail that many readers find perplexing. Williams is also stronger on clear explanation than on memorable formulation. He expertly unpicks skeptical scholar Bart Ehrman’s telephone-game analogy, used to suggest that significant errors have crept into the Gospel accounts through multiple iterations of oral transmission. But it is analogies like this that have made writers like Ehrman so successful in persuading audiences, and Williams’s excellent arguments could have been anchored more effectively in the reader’s mind by more frequent use of explanatory metaphors.
There is also one point on which I would take issue with Williams’s reading of a scriptural metaphor. Exploring the differences between John’s gospel and the previous three, he interprets the “cup” Jesus dreads in Gethsemane as a cup of suffering, relegating mention of the chief alternative—a cup of God’s anger—to a footnote. Given the sheer weight of the metaphor of the cup of God’s wrath in the Old Testament (from Job, the Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Obadiah, Habakkuk, and Zechariah), this should clearly be the primary reading. While the idea of a cup of suffering might appear more sensitive to an unbelieving reader, evading the harder meaning misses what might have been a natural opportunity to illuminate the meaning of the gospel.
These critiques aside, Can We Trust the Gospels? is an excellent, accessible resource for anyone wanting to dig deeper into the historical evidence for the life of Christ. It is written with a non-Christian reader in mind, the better to be shared with a skeptical friend. Read this book, and the next time someone asks you if there is any evidence that Jesus actually existed, you will be more than equipped to answer.
Rebecca McLaughlin holds a PhD from Cambridge University as well as a theology degree from Oak Hill Seminary. Her first book, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World's Largest Worldview, will be published by Crossway in 2019.
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